The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t put a stamp on the division in their home-and-home set with the Buffalo Sabres, but they will sure live with the results.
John Tavares’ overtime winner Saturday versus the Sabres earned a split with the division rival — and a landmark win on the second night of a back-to-back! — while elevating the Leafs back into a top-three seed in the Atlantic Division.
But while it was the captain that secured the first win on home ice for new coach Sheldon Keefe, Frederik Andersen deserves the lion’s share of credit for the coach’s accomplishment and the two points earned in the standings with 29 saves in a game dominated at times by the Sabres.
Toronto has two days off before another back-to-back set next week with a game in Philadelphia followed by Nazem Kadri’s return to Toronto on Wednesday with the Colorado Avalanche.
Until then, four points:
Start him whenever
So much was made of Mike Babcock’s resistance to starting Frederik Andersen on the second half of back-to-back sets — especially when a superior opponent awaiting the Leafs on the other side. But as much as the old Leafs coach resisted the idea, it was also probably Andersen’s preference all along as well.
As the Leafs were given the morning to rest after travelling back from Buffalo last night, Andersen came to the rink earlier in the morning to get some work in. He said it was especially important given the fact that the Leafs didn’t practice at all yesterday, but seeing some pucks the morning before his starts is just part of the routine.
“That’s just the way I like it,” he said.
While I’m sure the decision for Babcock involved other considerations, maybe avoiding messing with Andersen’s process was one of the more important factors when deciding the order of go for his goaltenders.
Fortunately for the Leafs, there’s no shortage of staffers that can prepare Andersen with some light work, and the sting that they might lack on their shots didn’t mean Andersen was any less sharp.
Toronto’s netminder was the best player on the ice for either team on Saturday night, ultimately making the saves that decided the outcome of the game.
Including this ridiculous stop on Conor Sheary:
Push for PP1
There are so many interesting roster decisions to come when Mitch Marner and Trevor Moore are healthy and ready to debut under Keefe. But it’s what the new coaching staff does with the power play that most will be keeping an eye on.
With Marner unavailable and Andreas Johnsson moved off the No. 1 unit, second-unit staples under the previous regime, Tyson Barrie and William Nylander, have both been promoted, and have in turn profited.
After Barrie scored his first goal with the man advantage last week in Arizona, Nylander cashed on a tremendous individual effort Saturday versus the Sabres.
It probably should be expected that Marner pinches either Barrie or Nylander from the No. 1 unit, but it probably isn’t a coincidence that both players have been at their best under Keefe, and their elevated special teams role.
Nylander in particular looks way too dangerous right now to be forced to deal with second-unit scraps.
The case for Engvall
Included in the decisions that need to be made when the Leafs do again have their full complement of forwards is Pierre Engvall’s future.
After a bit of shaky start to a tenure which began just a few weeks ago under Babcock, Engvall has grown noticeably comfortable in his fourth-line function, and especially since his long-time coach with the Toronto Marlies joined him at the NHL level.
Engvall has just a goal and two points since his recall, but has been used on the penalty kill under Keefe, as well as some shifts at centre, and has honestly dominated at the margins for Toronto. He finished at over 80 percent possession in six-plus minutes Saturday versus the Sabres, and individually counted two shots on four scoring chances.
Though he’s survived possible healthy scratches when others such as Nick Shore, Dymtro Timahov and Jason Spezza haven’t, Engvall might have to prove that Frederik Gauthier is expendable to cement his role under Keefe.
But what he has already done is proven to the person that matters most he belongs at this level.
“He established himself for me as a guy that was making his mark on every shift and every game he was playing in the American Hockey League, and that’s usually a pretty good sign that a player is ready for a new challenge,” Keefe said.
“Over the years that I spent with the Marlies, when I see players like that, when they get called up and play for the Leafs, they have done pretty well. If you go through it, it’s hard to think of a player that had been recalled from the Marlies that didn’t come up and play well right away. So the expectation was that he could fill in and play a role.”
It’s been multiple roles for Engvall, whose utility has been the reason he’s been successful to this point, and potentially the reason he stays.
“There’s a lot we can do with him,” Keefe said.
If it is criticism of Cody Ceci that irritates Kyle Dubas the most, he would be best to stay off social media tonight.
They (being the Twitter users) are after Ceci again after another difficult night for the top-pairing defenseman, who looked particularly lost while Rasmus Ristolainen was waltzing down from the point and converting with the game-tying goal.
While the expectation should be that Keefe’s system will be better suited for Ceci’s skills, the defender’s inattention to the cutting Ristolainen is another example of what I believe is the biggest limitation in his game: the failure to diagnose plays as they happen.
As the Leafs grow more comfortable into the system, Ceci’s performance should improve. But no schematic alterations can change the fact that he’s usually slowest to react to everything happening around him in coverage in the defensive zone.
It’s a problem that’s not going away.
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